The intimate debut memoir by the man known to the world as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s Officer Clemmons, who made history as the first African American actor to have a recurring role on a children’s television program.
When he created the role of Officer Clemmons on the award-winning television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, François Clemmons made history as the first African American actor to have a recurring role on a children’s program. A new, wide world opened for Clemmons—but one that also required him to make painful personal choices and sacrifices. Officer Clemmons details Clemmons’s incredible life story, beginning with his early years in Alabama and Ohio, marked by family trauma and loss, through his studies as a music major at Oberlin College, where Clemmons began to investigate and embrace his homosexuality, to a chance encounter with Fred Rogers that changed the whole course of both men’s lives, leading to a deep, spiritual friendship and mentorship spanning nearly forty years.
From New York to Russia, Berlin to California, Grammy Award–winner Clemmons has performed for audiences around the world and remains a beloved figure. Evocative and intimate, and buoyed by its author’s own vivacious, inimitable energy, Officer Clemmons chronicles a historical and enlightening life and career of a man who has brought joy to millions of adults and children, across generations and borders.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Younger Years
When I was born in 1945, the Sanders-Scarborough clan had lived for several generations in the sprawling, blanched little town of Blackwater, Mississippi, just north of Meridian, in the backwater region near the Okatibbee Reservoir and the Alabama border. If you weren't a cotton farmer or sharecropper, or a smithy who worked for white folks, there wasn't much for you to do there. Some folks got along raising chickens and guinea fowl; some did light farming but could not prosper. Each year they fell further in debt to the landowner, Ol' Mastuh Sanders.
Twice in our clan's memory, the floods had come in late spring, and no one had been able to plant in time for a summer crop. The seed money was wasted. But most folks stayed on because they didn't have anyplace else to go. It seemed better to be around your own folks — to scratch out a living in the tired earth — than to move to some strange place where folks called you mister. and missus. and didn't know your nickname, or your granddaddy's name, or how your uncle Jeb had lost one finger in the smithy on Mastuh Sanders's homestead, or even who to call for a county fair game of baseball. New folks wouldn't know nothin' at all about you. That was no way to live, so folks stayed on, hard as it was.
To my great-grandmama, this is what seemed important and what made her call this place home. She was also tired. Laura Mae Sanders Pinman had raised thirteen children of her own and found herself surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including my older brother Willie Jr., me, and my twin sisters Betty and Barbara. She raised the children when their mamas couldn't do it. And the children just kept coming. She would cook. She would clean. She would wash and pray. She worked and didn't slow down for old memories to catch her. The Old Homestead on Mastuh Sanders's land had been falling apart for as long as she could remember. Every shutter was hanging down or gone. The paint she helped apply when she was a young girl had never been refreshed; it was barely visible. If she could ever get the front door of the sagging porch to close, it might help to keep the marsh rats from invading the kitchen on hot summer nights. She was always mindful not to leave food out where they could get it; and she felt constant dread that those rats might crawl into the bedrooms of one of her grandchildren — her grans — and bite one of her darlings. When it rained, every bucket and pot in the house was used to catch water from the leaky roof.
There were many causes for sadness in her life, but the way people tell it, the greatest sadness of all was when her last husband was killed. Noah Leon Pinman could work hard and was good with his hands. He had a quick smile with pretty teeth. He had been her third husband and had stayed around The Homestead the longest.
My own mama, Inez Delois, would sometimes tell me and my brother the story, later on after we had moved up north, to give us an idea of how it was down south in the old days.
The way she told it, everybody knew that Great-Grandmama Laura Mae was Ol' Mastuh Sanders's woman. He came by to see her every week. Noah Leon Pinman knew it too. Even though he had agreed to work the farm for Ol' Mastuh Sanders, he hadn't agreed to anything else. Still, Noah Leon went on about his business farming and, with the help of the kids, year after year, got the planting and harvesting done. There was always some fence that needed mending, or some field that needed watering. He kept the children busy, and they all worked together from sunup to sundown.
Most of the time, Noah Leon just ignored Ol' Mastuh Sanders and his late afternoon visits. Great-Grandmama Laura Mae used to wonder how it was that Noah Leon always seemed to know when Ol' Mastuh Sanders was coming and just disappeared into the fields. She tried to ignore it too. She had been going with Ol' Mastuh Sanders for so long that it just seemed natural to her. She didn't know any other way. Mama Inez said that her grandmama, Lily Mae, had told Laura Mae to go with Ol' Mastuh Sanders when she was a young girl, and it had been that way ever since.
Laura Mae's mama, Lily Mae, had been a slave on the Sanders plantation all her life and had always been "worried" by the white men who came by the place. That's just the way it was, and she was no different from any of the other colored girls around there, even if she had wanted to say something.
One day, Noah Leon asked her to come to town with him and not go with Ol' Mastuh Sanders when he came by. She just looked at him and kept on with her cooking and cleaning.
When Ol' Mastuh Sanders came by the old house that night, Noah Leon stuck around. Laura Mae pulled off her apron and headscarf, wiped her face with her hands, and straightened her simple dress as she had always done when Mastuh Sanders came. She walked slowly out of the house, down the path, and past the barn.
She didn't like leaving and going with Mastuh Sanders, but if she didn't go, she knew they couldn't stay in the Old Homestead any longer. She didn't know where they would go. This place was home. This was the only home she had ever known.
Just past the barn, Mastuh Sanders walked closer and spoke to her as he always did. He asked her how she was feeling and if she was glad to see him. She tried to smile and said yes, as she always did. He told her he had wanted to stop by and see her earlier that week, but his work and family had kept him away. He had been saying that for more than twenty years, and Laura Mae had stopped listening. That night, she was troubled by the pounding of her heart and the sharp voice calling to her from the house. It was Noah Leon, telling her to come back to him and leave Ol' Mastuh Sanders.
Ol' Mastuh Sanders was still talking to her as she tried to block the hurt and anguish of Noah Leon's voice out of her ears. His voice grew louder, and she realized, suddenly, that he was standing close by. She wheeled around and stared at him. Noah Leon had a big chopping cleaver raised over his head, and he was coming toward Ol' Mastuh Sanders.
She screamed as she heard the shots ring out. Noah stood motionless and stunned. Ol' Mastuh Sanders had reached into his overalls pocket, pulled out his pistol, and shot Noah Leon point-blank, three times without stopping.
Everybody knew that he carried that pistol. He sometimes used it on sick livestock and stray rabbits. Didn't Noah Leon know it? Laura Mae never had time to speak, it happened so fast.
Noah Leon was on the ground at her feet, bleeding from his chest and stomach. A crowd quickly gathered around them.
"Stand back!" Ol' Mastuh Sanders barked. "Let him lay there! Nobody touch him. Let the slimy bastard lay there where he belongs: in the dirt. I never liked him anyway."
They all stood there; nobody moved, not even the babies. They were all afraid of Ol' Mastuh Sanders and knew that he would shoot any one of them just as quick as he had shot Noah Leon. He looked around, and his eyes stopped on Great-Grand-mama Laura Mae. She started crying, fell to her knees, and crawled over to Noah Leon's body. Blessedly, he'd died before he hit the ground.
Laura Mae gathered what was left of him and rocked him gently in her arms as she cried and wailed. She rocked him as though he were her baby and he was only asleep. Ol' Mastuh Sanders told everyone to leave him be and to not bury him. Silently, everyone backed away while Ol' Mastuh Sanders stood there over Laura Mae, who was crying and rocking Noah Leon's body. She looked pitiful and helpless, there on her knees, while Noah Leon's blood slowly soaked the front of her dress.
After mumbling something to Laura Mae and getting no response, Ol' Mastuh Sanders just shook his head, turned, and walked away, putting his gun back in his pocket. He walked away without looking back, past the barn and up the path to the Old Homestead. He moved silently around the side, got on his horse, and rode away.
My mother remembered Great-Grandmama Laura Mae sobbing and wailing in the yard for the rest of that evening. She was still there hours later when Aunt Coradelle and Cousin Dina Mae walked over to her, called to her softly, and carried her to the house.
After dark, some of the men went back for Noah Leon's body and carried it into the house. They laid him out and cleaned off the blood. Great-Grandmama Laura Mae insisted on being in charge of everything. She gave him his last bath with love and great patience as she talked to herself and anyone there listening. She kissed his body and rubbed him with Vaseline and the lanolin she used for her hair. When they had finished cleaning him and dressed him in overalls, she sat with him all night and continued to talk and sing and pray.
She sat for the rest of the night with one hand holding the Bible in her lap and her other on him. When people began to wake up in the morning, before the rooster crowed, they found her still in silent vigil with her Bible.
She was like a walking, nodding trance-woman for some time, weeping quietly. She stayed that way until some of Noah Leon's people arrived from Louisiana. They wanted to take his body back home to be buried, but she wouldn't hear any of it. Finally, she allowed him to be buried on a little hill by the creek. She put up a wooden cross. That way she could see him every day and take food and flowers to his grave. That was the way she wanted it, and no one could change her mind. Noah Leon's people went home without him.
When Ol' Mastuh Sanders came back, weeks, maybe months later, it wasn't to see Great-Grandmama Laura Mae. It was to introduce Mr. Slim Hawkins to everyone as the new overseer for the plantation. That time Great-Grandmama Laura Mae never came out of the house. Ol' Mastuh Sanders waited for her a long time, but she never came out. He stood around his horse and the trough looking and just waiting. After that, he came to the Old Homestead to talk to Slim about the crops and to discuss planting, but he never came to "worry" Great-Grandmama Laura Mae again. Those days were over when Noah Leon died.
Nothing much was ever said of Noah Leon's death. No questions, no investigations, no detectives, no county sheriffs, no coroner's report, no trial. That's what I remember most about my mother's telling of Great-Grandmama Laura Mae's story. Everybody knew something, and nobody said anything.
How long it took before things returned to normal, nobody knew. It just happened.
Laura Mae's third daughter, my Grandmama Minnie, bore six children: Lula Bea, Abraham, my mother Inez Delois, Catherine, Minnie Laura, and Levi. All these babies were left in the country with their grandmother while Minnie went to town to earn money as a domestic for white folks. Minnie had married Saul Scarborough when she was fifteen, and she bore him those six children before he lost his mind.
When I was a child, Granddaddy Saul did little except sit in the old rocking chair and dip snuff or chew tobacco. He wore the same weathered overalls every single day until he had to get a new pair. By the time I was three years old, he was already using a cane to get around. I remember him telling me that the cane could talk. When we were alone, the cane would tell me fanciful stories of raccoon hunting and catfish fetching down by the creek. Granddaddy Saul's arthritis and rheumatism bothered him most of the time, and he had frequent migraine headaches, but nothing seemed to bother him when we went walking in the woods and that cane was busy talking. As we walked out beyond the hedges and down by the fields, he would hold my hand for a while. Then he would let me hold onto the side of his overalls so I could keep up. He seemed just like everyone else to me; he always seemed fine.
Every morning when I woke up, I'd go looking for him. I'd always find him sitting and rocking by himself or staring off into space or talking with the chickens in the yard. When I found him, I would stand by him and talk to the chickens too. After a time, we would go off walking together.
All the big people who came to the house were bossy to me and said that I was kin to all of them. Even when they came from far away and I didn't know them, they said I had some of their blood. Then they would hug me and kiss me and call me Little Angel and Little Buttercup, as if they knew me. I didn't like that.
If I could find Granddaddy Saul, we would go out walking for a long time. I would stay with him until the big strangers left. When we'd come back, it would be after dark and the dogs would bark and jump up, licking and greeting us. Everybody would fuss at Granddaddy Saul for keeping me away so long. I never complained because he fed me corn bread and sorghum from a can, and we talked to the cane. When I told my brother Willie Jr. that the cane could talk, he said it wasn't true because Granddaddy Saul never asked the cane to talk to him.
At night, while I lay on my pallet, I could hear my Great-Grandmama Laura Mae fussing at him about that talking cane and those tales he told. She said she knew he wasn't telling the truth and shouldn't be fooling me like that. That was when I had the revelation that Granddaddy Saul hadn't told Great-Grandmama Laura Mae or Willie Jr. or my mother that the cane could talk. This was a deep secret between him and me.
Granddaddy Saul taught me that to hear the cane talk, we had to be quiet. Sometimes we were quiet for so long that I fell asleep. Granddaddy Saul would wake me up to tell me that I'd missed the talking. I didn't like it that I had fallen asleep under a shady tree in the midday sun and had missed my important encounter with the talking cane. I would promise Granddaddy Saul and myself that I wouldn't fall asleep again.
When I managed to stay awake, the cane would tell me of clever animals that lived in the woods and outfoxed the old plantation master and ate his chickens. It told me about the deer and the rabbit and the fox, the bear and the coyote, the turtle, and the grasshopper that lived deep in the woods. I'd listen anxiously, hardly blinking my eyes and holding my breath.
Sometimes Granddaddy Saul and I would sing songs with the cane. We'd sing about flying, fishing, marching, and stealing honey from the bees. It never occurred to me that the cane wasn't singing when Granddaddy Saul was singing.
One day when we were out walking and I wanted the cane to talk, we waited a long time. After a while, we sat down by the banks of the Wateechee Creek and continued to wait and listen. Finally, Granddaddy Saul told me to hold the tips of my thumb and index finger together in each hand, close my eyes real tight, and make a wish that the cane would talk to us. I closed my eyes, and slowly the cane began to talk.
It told me of kings and queens who were my oldest kin, peoples in an ancient civilization called Afrique. The cane talked about tropical jungle places and described strange, ferocious, growling animals large enough to eat the fox and possum and jackrabbit and deer and me. The cane talked of a great Afrique warrior who was strong enough to kill the big animals with a spear and knife. He would skin and cook them over a fire. Then he would eat them and share them with his kinfolk. He wasn't afraid and would protect me from the big animals. The warrior, a mighty leader who was loved by his people, was named Shakti Binge. I told Granddaddy Saul that one day I would take him with me to Afrique. He smiled and rubbed my head and said that he would wait.
One day, my mother called me in from chasing the chickens and told me to stay in the house. It had been raining all day, letting up only for brief moments. There was water everywhere, and we all huddled under quilts and kept our socks on to try to stay warm. The rain continued steadily, and the pounding of the water on the roof and the wind battering the side of the house made us look at each other in fear. I stood between Great-Grandmama Laura Mae and Granddaddy Saul. My brother and Mr. Slim Hawkins stood behind Mama Inez and my daddy, Willie Son. Cousin Dina Mae and her four kids and Lula Bea and her six kids were all huddled nearby looking out the window and wondering like the rest of us. It had been raining off and on for well over a week. The rain was affecting everything. Daddy said that the factory didn't have any work for him.
Grandmama Minnie Green arrived home from town soaking wet. I heard her voice before I actually saw her. She said that everybody in town was talking about the rising water and the rain. Her feet were muddy, and she was carrying her shoes. She said that she'd had to walk the last five miles because Ol' Mr. Carmichael was afraid his mules and wagon wouldn't make it through the waterlogged roads. There were snakes everywhere, she said. She was almost bitten when she accidentally stepped on a rattler.
That whole day, the men huddled and smoked, and they checked on the animals in the barn so many times I knew it was a way to get away from the houseful of ladies and kids. They grumbled and hunched over as they walked through the rain, reaching in their pockets for their matches, pipes, tobacco, and snuff. Nobody had a good feeling about this water. The men had to mull over what to do if the rain got worse. There were few choices because there was no higher ground anywhere.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Officer Clemmons"
Copyright © 2020 Dr. François S. Clemmons.
Excerpted by permission of Catapult.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I Little Buttercup: The Younger Years,
Part II Youngstown,
Part IV There Are Many Ways to Say I Love You,